With the introduction of wire fencing and sweet lucerne, the large-scale domestication of the ostrich first became possible in the 1800s. But it was only when Victorian fashion victims developed an insatiable appetite for ostrich feathers around 1880 that it became a reality, and land values in the Oudtshoorn area shot up overnight. At the height of the feather boom, the so-called feather barons built lavish town houses where they would occasionally overnight before returning to their marble-floored farmhouses.
The best preserved of these "ostrich palaces" (albeit not the grandest) is the Le Roux Town House, a satellite of the CP Nel Museum, where you can peruse photographs of other houses that didn't survive the 20th century. Fortunately, more of these magnificent sandstone buildings survived than were knocked down; though most are closed to the public, they're worth walking or driving past (you can pick up a map from the tourism office). Note, particularly, Pinehurst, on Jan van Riebeeck Street, now part of a teachers' training college, and the elegant Mimosa, on Baron van Reede Street. The latter street becomes the R328, which leads out of town to the ostrich farms , the Rust-en-Vrede waterfall (a 74m/243-ft. drop under which you can cool off in summer), and the Cango Caves, Oudtshoorn's biggest attraction after the ostrich. Animal lovers who don't object to animals in enclosures can caress cheetahs -- or have close encounters with crocodiles -- at the Cango Wildlife Ranch, while early risers can meet the tiny stars from the Meerkat Magic Conservation Project.
For a tiny Karoo dorpie, nearby Prince Albert also has a surprising number of things to do. Besides the restaurants and galleries, two experiences come highly recommended: a dusk Ghost Tour that winds through town (with Ailsa Tudhope; tel. 023/541-1211) and an adrenalin-charged cycle down the mighty Swartberg pass (Lindsay will provide the bikes and drive you to the top; [tel. 082/456-8848]). Cheese lovers should also stop at Gay's Dairy (tel. 023/541-1703) to taste the produce from Gay's lovely herd of Guernseys, while those with a sweet tooth must make a point of stopping at SoetKaroo (56 Church St; tel. 023/5411768), a small vineyard in the center of town, where Herman and Susan Perold produce a Red Muscat d'Alexandrie, a traditional dessert wine, bottled in gorgeous decanters.
Visiting an Ostrich Farm
The ostrich remains the primary source of income for Oudtshoorn, with thousands flocking to see, touch, eat, and (yes) even ride the giant birds. There are some 400 ostrich farms. Highgate (incidentally, the biggest ostrich farm in the world), Safari, Oudtshoorn, and Cango all vie for the tourist buck -- R50 to R60, to be exact -- offering more or less the same 45- to 80-minute tour. These include an explanation of ostrich farming (from incubation to tanning), guided tours of the farm, the opportunity to sit on an ostrich and stand on its eggs, and an ostrich derby. All offer meals with ostrich on the menu (you usually need to prebook).
Of the farms, Cango Ostrich Farm (tel. 044/272-4623) is considered by many to be the best, not least because of its location overlooking the beautiful Schoemanshoek Valley. Individuals are not tagged onto large tour groups, and visitors take a brief walk from one process to the next rather than being driven around a large farm. Finally, while you can sit on an ostrich, they are not raced here, saving you the embarrassment of this circus display (if you'd like to see this for anthropological reasons, opt for Highgate (tel. 044/272-7115; www.highgate.co.za), the world's oldest and largest show farm. The 45-minute tours (R56) take place daily from 9am to 5pm; reserve ahead and enjoy a lunch or dinner served in restored laborers' cottages with great views overlooking the valley, where you get a wine tasting with your meal and sample the distinctive flavors of the Klein Karoo.
Feather Barons & Ostrich Palaces -- It was the ostrich that put the Klein Karoo on the map: During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the world decided that ostrich feathers were simply the hautest of haute, Oudtshoorn, where the first ostriches were farmed, found itself crowned the feather capital of the world. Local ostrich farmers, known then as "feather barons," became millionaires overnight, building themselves luxurious "ostrich palaces," clearly identifiable by their sandstone turrets and other baroque touches. Sadly, the boom went bang in 1914, with the sobering outbreak of World War I. The profitable trade in feathers never really recovered, with fickle Dame Fashion seeking her postwar inspiration elsewhere, but with the current health scares surrounding red meat, the ostrich is again enjoying a surge in popularity--it's a delicious and low-fat alternative to beef, and bears absolutely no resemblance to chicken.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.